The More Things Change

Originally published in The Texas Observer on November 26, 1999.

“It was really a nice community, the kind that you would be proud to send your kids to its schools,” remembers a 49-year resident of Polytechnic Heights, a neighborhood in southeastern Fort Worth. “And now you go down and you see old filthy mattresses out on the curbs and it is taking on a ghetto look.” According to Scott Cummings’ book, Left Behind In Rosedale: Race Relations and the Collapse of Community Institutions, filthy mattresses have proven the least of the problem for the 10,000 inhabitants of “Poly,” as the area is commonly called.

Once a stable, middle-class, and exclusively white neighborhood, the racial composition of Poly has undergone a striking series of changes during the last half of this century. The economic boom of the fifties and the desegregation efforts of the Great Society conspired to bring a wave of prosperous African Americans, whose presence disturbed the community’s hitherto reliable sense of racial hierarchy. Then, in the seventies, lower-class minorities in search of jobs began to pour into the area. To observe that Poly’s white citizens did not avail themselves of this opportunity to forge a multiracial neighborhood is to understate the matter somewhat dramatically. The most affluent among them quickly headed for the suburbs. The rest soon followed, encouraged by real estate brokers, bankers, businesses, and other profiteers who fed the logic of “white flight.”

By the mid and late seventies, when Cummings worked in the neighborhood as a community organizer, “white resistance had collapsed, white flight had accelerated,” and Poly “was well on its way to becoming a predominantly black neighborhood.” Census records, he notes, indicate that white families occupied 98 percent of Poly’s households in 1960. Thirty years later, that number fell to a mere 12 percent. Of those whites who were “left behind,” the majority were elderly—whose homes one could rather easily identify by the iron bars fixed across the windows and doors.

As this narrative suggests, what makes the recent history of Polytechnic Heights a tragedy is not racial transformation per se, but the decline into poverty that accompanied the loss of jobs and the flight of middle-class money. This point does not always seem obvious to Cummings, who spends much of the book presenting, in needless detail, an inventory of rapes, thefts, burglaries, murders, and drug sales, along with numerous episodes of vandalism, intimidation, and extortion—all of which were committed by Poly’s black youth at the expense of a vulnerable (and understandably terrified) group of white elderly. To be sure, in the wake of the white exodus Poly degenerated into an exceptionally violent, squalid place to live. A series of brutal rapes in 1978 and again in 1982 gathered such a storm of media protest that—even if a heavy crack-cocaine traffic in the eighties had not fortified its reputation for lawlessness—the neighborhood might s till signify little else but violent crime to the larger population of Fort Worth.

Yet it seems quite possible to argue that the process of “ghettoization” in Poly turned not only—or even necessarily—on a racial axis, but also on the question of class. Soon after whites abandoned the community, the black middle class, which had made its initial forays in the fifties and sixties, left as well. Cummings notes this in passing but makes little of it, referring frequently to the poverty-stricken “underclass” that resulted, but failing to develop any particular insights in this direction. Among his observations concerning the feelings of those white elderly who were left behind in Poly, consider this notation, which is not pursued by any analysis: “Some of the elderly insisted that they did not object to living in the same neighborhood with black people, but most were very concerned about the ‘type of colored’ that were moving in.” “The elderly,” he continues, “were highly critical of certain classes of people regardless of racial or ethnic origin.” For some, then, the problem was clearly that filthy mattress, not the skin color of its former owner.

None of this is meant to substitute class for race. Nor is it to minimize the powerful sense of racial antagonism that the author conveys through his interviews of black criminals, white victims, and their various interlocutors in the judicial system. The record of race hatred in Poly is profoundly troublesome. Nevertheless, Cummings treats the complicated degeneration of an entire community by applying a series of well-worn slogans and tautologies—versions of “The community was devastated by the forces of urban decline and disinvestment” appear in each chapter. In the main, he avoids both conceptual clarity and the sort of subtle analysis that could have yielded a particularly rich bounty, given the nature of the subject and the availability of the sources.

A related, and revealing, problem concerns his treatment of evidence. In the first chapter, Cummings writes, “I have chosen to maintain the anonymity of all subjects discussed in this book. I have also used fictitious names for some of the communities studied”—including, you may have noticed, Polytechnic Heights, which he names “Rosedale.” Readers have no need, of course, for the actual names of the individual subjects herein. But I can think of no persuasive reason to shield the location of the neighborhood, and two important grounds for disclosure. In the first place, Cummins gives so many hints about the neighborhood’s identity (wittingly or unwittingly) that whatever ethical standard he is trying to meet is plainly compromised anyway. (A modest research effort turned up the name “Poly” for this reviewer, who has never been near Fort Worth.) In the second place, his refusal to cite the relevant sources by their proper names (i.e., census records, community newspapers, demographic data) leaves readers unable to measure his claims even in a minimal fashion. For a book that purports to enrich the literature of urban sociology, withholding vital sources is hardly a compelling move to make.

Much of the trouble here appears due to Cummings’ preoccupation with the emotional and psychological consequences of the community’s fall—with “the human side of neighborhood succession,” as he puts it. This approach leads him both to overprotect his evidence and to subsume analytical rigor to empathetic reporting. The final chapters contain some useful observations about the nationwide problem of racial integration in urban communities as well as a survey of the failed efforts to “revitalize” Poly, yet these seem oddly disconnected from the body of the book. Unfortunately, the “human” perspective in this book means that Left Behind in Rosedale says very little about how institutions function, and instead tenders a bundle of conclusions with which few readers will quarrel: racism is pernicious, neighborhoods need jobs, and strong communities are important for the spiritual health of their residents.

Despite these failures, Left Behind in Rosedale amply succeeds in conveying the third of these findings. Popular books such as Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace cover some of the same territory, yet Cummings’ stark interviews with the whites left behind in Poly underscore the importance of stable neighborhoods in American culture.

In this respect, the book belongs to the larger reevaluation of community life currently underway among intellectuals, academics, journalists, and policy experts. Throughout much of American history, the urbane and the sophisticated have scorned and excessive sense of rootedness as little else but the bulwark of parochialism and prejudice. In the small town, the farmhouse, the urban enclave, and the suburban neighborhood, you will recall, have languished the “boob,” the “redneck,” the “working-class ethnic,” and the “soccer mom.” What has united these disparate figures in the cosmopolitan imagination is a frame of mind into which the virtues of tolerance, culture, and mobility supposedly do not penetrate. To be sure, the temper as well as the substance of this indictment have varied across time and place. And the idea of rootedness has managed to acquire its own set of rewards—especially among the upwardly mobile, whose ambivalence has led them to imbue community life with a durable sense of nostalgia. Nonetheless, when measured against a bourgeois ethos that reveres progress, success, speed, and impermanence, “community” long has been a notion too static for the American on the make.

Some of this reflexive bias against community life seems to be diminishing in the nineties, at least in certain quarters. Whereas Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson once met critical acclaim for their bleak portraits of Zenith and Winesdale, Ohio, Tracy Kidder has earned praise for his Hometown, his rich, textured ode to the “sense of place” that permeates modern-day Northampton, Massachusetts. Consider, too, the rise to prominence of the “communitarian” movement among intellectuals and policy-wonks. Led by theorists such as Amitai Etzioni and Robert Bellah, and encouraged by the work of Robert Putnam and like-minded intellectuals, communitarians place at the center of their program connections among civic virtue, individual morality, and the networks of associational life—that is, churches, amateur sports leagues, local charities—that are refracted by stable neighborhoods.

Of course, the racist attitudes of the white elderly in Left Behind in Rosedale should help quash the romanticism that sometimes creeps into these discussions. If neighborhood life can function as a crucible of moral virtue and an antidote to the corrosive anonymity of the marketplace, it can also harbor the sort of prejudice that cripples the imagination and disables political will. Ultimately, whatever one makes of the evocations of “lost community” that Cummings displays here, the book should remind us that the fate of our neighborhoods and local institutions remain, at the end of the twentieth century, central to the promise of American life.